Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Is Human Immortality Possible?

It sure is.

I was reading an interesting article about "shared-death" experiences, in which a skeptic claims an "immortal soul" is impossible because there is no physical mechanism by which human cognition could continue after death. This is a straightforward and common position, but there are several alternatives that could make it invalid; here are a few of my favourites.

One possibility is that we live in a simulation. If we do, then the simulator could capture our mental states at the moment of death and continue simulating them in another context. This doesn't violate any physical laws and strictly speaking, it's compatible with atheism. It even seems plausible in the sense that (given enough resources) we could ourselves simulate a universe (not like ours) in which intelligent life exists and we implement an afterlife for those beings.

Another possibility, probably still the most popular one, is that dualism is true after all --- that souls exist and interact with the brain in some manner to produce consciousness. There are still some strong arguments for this.

However, if a God exists who cares about us, then he can implement an afterlife even if we don't have persistent souls. Basically he can take the role of the simulator in the simulation argument. (There are some important differences between the simulation argument and theism, e.g. the simulator(s) would not be omniscient, but those differences aren't relevant here.) When we die, he continues running our minds in some other context, and ultimately creates new bodies for them. In a Christian context, this would be Christian physicalism. (Personally I'm somewhere between dualism and Christian physicalism.)

Another basis for immortality that does not require theism is any multiverse theory that implies the existence an infinite number of universes like our own, e.g. the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, or eternal inflation. Such a theory (combined with the assumption of materialism) implies that any given mental state appears in an infinite number of contexts. In particular, there are (an infinite number of) mental states of people who remember being "you" dying. (Permutation City is a good book based on this.)

Any or all of these options may seem far-fetched, but each of them are taken seriously by respectable thinkers.

In the context of the original article, I think of those possibilities dualism has the most power to explain near-death or shared-death experiences, followed by the theistic or quasi-theistic possibilities of an intentionally-implemented afterlife.

One more thing:

“That’s the problem with all of them – they’re all anecdotal evidence and science doesn’t deal with anecdotal evidence,” Nickell says.

Indeed, but that represents a limitation of science, not a limitation on what's true. That Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo is not a scientific fact, but it's still a fact.

1 comment:

  1. I sometimes wonder (or maybe hope) that if we are living in a simulation, part of what it takes to get it past the ethics review board is some kind of universal salvation, where after all the sentient beings die you get revived and welcomed to heaven where we are no longer subject to constraints of the simulation, and can use the processor cycles needed for simulating us more freely.